Once-lers Anonymous

“It's not about what it is, it's about what it can become.” ― Dr. Seuss, The Lorax

Flying Possum Legacy Lives On, Transforms (Final Draft)

The signs of the March fire that damaged Flying Possum Leather, and caused the death of owner Bruce Walker, are beginning to disappear. The burnt wooden shakes on the awning at 526 W. Dickson St. and the plywood covering the doors are the last remnants of the ordeal.  Messages from the passerby of Dickson Street have filled the boards with condolences, but soon they too will be removed.

You "Left" but it will be all "Right"

“Bruce, you will always be a true legend to Dickson,” reads one of the many messages.

“I miss you Bruce! Put in a good word for me!”

“Thanks for being a good friend!”

“R.I.P. Bruce. I will miss you. Dickson will never be the same.”

Soon, those messages will be removed as renovations continue on the building. This week, Bruce Walker’s older brother Bob Walker, 64, finalized the details for a new idea, the Flying Possum reborn as a saloon.

Folloiwing his brother’s death, Bob Walker relocated to Fayetteville from Chico, Calif. He had contemplated reopening Flying Possum Leather, but the money wasn’t there to continue the venture.

“We didn’t really feel like Bruce would have wanted us to,” he said. “I think Dickson Street has been trying to leave Bruce behind for years.”

The bar would be open by January at the earliest, Bob Walker said.

“I’d like to have space to clear out and put a dance floor,” he said, but it is more important that what they put in the space works. He has taught different types of dance from swing to salsa for 18 years.

They hope to decorate the bar with Bruce memorabilia that people would recognize. The signature-filled plywood may be used on the patio, he said.

Bruce was known for his custom sandals styled like Birkenstocks, as well as his guitar straps.

“He made the best custom sandals. I’ve had four pairs over the last 35 years because they last a long time,” said musician Jed Clampit, 63, a friend of Bruce Walker since 1975. He still uses the guitar strap Bruce Walker made him in 1976, one of many musicians including Willie Nelson and Neil Young.

*    *    *

Bruce Walker was born six years after Bob Walker, in Searcy, Ark. They grew up greeting the public at their family’s grocery business, just a few doors down from their home.

Bruce Walker looked up to Bob Walker, his fellow renegade and the family musician.

“I won a lot of attention and awards through my music in school. …Bruce went on to be a very good singer, guitar player and drummer,” Bob Walker said.

“When he came to [visit me in] California, boy he was wide eyed,” said Bob Walker. In his late 20s at the time, Bob Walker had came to Chico with friends from the Navy.

He owned part of a bookstore in downtown Chico before he picked up leatherworking from another man working in the area. He later became a custom shoe and boot maker and was the first vendor in Chico to sell Birkenstock sandals.

Bruce Walker got his first experience with leatherwork and his first pair of Birkenstocks in that shop in 1973, Bob Walker said.

After his visit, Bruce Walker returned to Searcy and made his first few pairs of shoes.

“I’m not sure it was by design, but he found his way into the business,” Bob Walker said.

After moving to Northwest Arkansas in 1974, Bruce Walker worked at Blanchard Springs Caverns as a tour guide for the U.S. Forest Service. While walking down Dickson Street on a weekend visit, he noticed a help wanted sign in the recently opened Nelson Leather Co.’s window.

“He walked in, told them he made the shoes he was wearing, and they said, ‘you’re hired,’” Bob Walker said.

A year later, Nelson Leather Co. moved to Eureka Springs. Bruce Walker leased the half-unit and the 35-year reign of Flying Possum Leather began.

He leased the rest of the unit once it became available, even though it quadrupled his rent.

“He had already made up his mind that he was going to expand,” Bob Walker said.

Times weren’t always easy for Bruce Walker financially. He was often “dancing to the right and dancing to the left [maintaining his finances], but it never occurred to him to leave Dickson or get a smaller shop,” Bob Walker said. “Dickson Street, the Flying Possum, his dog [Bugsy], his craft, that was his persona. It didn’t have to make sense business wise. It was who he was.”

Bugsy, Bruce Walker's Dog

Bruce Walker was a hard person to describe, said Bil Jett, a long time friend who also worked on Dickson Street. “He was easy going for the most part, but if you ever made an enemy of him, by God he never forgot it.”

After Bugsy was taken from Bruce Walker’s side by emergency crews, Jett was one of many Fayetteville residents vying to give him a home.

“I just felt it was the right thing to do, one way I could honor Bruce,” he said. “I’d known Bugsy since he was a baby, and knew he was a really good dog.” Bugsy stays with Jett now, spending his days at work with Jett on Dickson Street.

Jett doesn’t have any problem with a bar replacing Flying Possum Leather. “To be honest, I didn’t think they could replace Bruce in there anyway.”

“[He was] more of an artist than a business man,” Clampit said. “He was just one of those unique guys that we have the opportunity to meet a few times in our lives.”

*   *   *

Bob Walker arrived in Fayetteville three days after the fire, but his grieving didn’t begin until he returned to California for two weeks.

“That’s where my connection [with Bruce] was, at home, in California,” Bob Walker said. He and his brother were close, talking on the phone late at night two to three times a week.

Support poured out for Bruce Walker’s family after the fire and during the clean-up.

“We had pages of people who signed up, and dozens of people who showed up [to help clean],” Bob Walker said. “It’s hard to name a few people, there were so many who gave so much. …No shortage of heroes in Fayetteville.”

Grown men have come up to Bob Walker, telling him stories of how they came to Fayetteville as freshmen, a little bit scared and a little bit homesick. They would walk into Flying Possum Leather, and leave two or three hours later feeling more at home, he said.

Four nights after the fire, 20 bands had signed up to play at a memorial service at George’s Majestic Lounge, across the street. The owner, Bruce Walker’s long-time friend Brian Crowne, may make it an annual event and donate the proceeds to non-profits that support things Bruce believed in. He would be blown away by the public outpouring, Bob Walker said.

Crowne could not be reached for comment.

“When my brother died, he left a void in many ways here on Dickson Street. Left a location, left a desire for something Bruce, something possum,” Bob Walker said. The family wanted to continue something in Fayetteville, so Bob Walker decided to leave his life in Chico as a semiretired dance instructor, and take a chance.

“You never know what’s coming for you,” he said, quoting “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”

The community has been very supportive of the decision not to reopen as a leather store, Bob Walker said. “Nobody is going to do it like Bruce did, so I’m glad we’re really not even trying.”

Bob Walker has developed friendships with many of Bruce Walker’s friends, and community members who didn’t even know Bruce Walker, but wanted to be involved in the clean-up. “I’ve met more people on a fairly deep level than I could have in years living here.”

One of those people is Amy Clark, an invaluable volunteer after the fire, Bob Walker said. Now she is like a daughter to him; he visits her at work on Dickson Street. During this week’s thunderstorms, he made sure she would have transportation other than her bicycle.

“I feel really inclined to do what I can to help those who have helped me,” Bob Walker said.

He and his partners are still figuring out the particulars of the bar, but he has a good feeling about it.

“I just feel like the pieces of this puzzle are as right as they’re going to get,” Bob Walker said. “How much control do we have anyways?”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Advertisements
1 Comment »

Flying Possum Legacy Lives On, Transforms

The building at 526 West Dickson St. in Fayetteville looked like it had seen better days. The damaged and worn wooden shakes on the awning and bare brick face above look out of sync with the neighboring Mediterranean grill and sushi restaurant adorned with neon signs and bright white paint.

But now the space was starting to show new life; the glass has been replaced in the large front windows and quickly decorated with flyers for local concerts and events.

Yet two sheets of plywood covering the former doors, filled with messages written in black, silver, red or whatever color marker passerby had on hand, garner more attention than any of the bright flyers in the windows.

“Bruce, you will always be a true legend to Dickson,” one weathered inscription reads. Hundreds have stopped by the boarded door to write their condolences.

You "Left" but it will be all "Right"

“I miss you Bruce! Put in a good word for me!”

“Thanks for being a good friend!”

“RIP Bruce. I will miss you. Dickson will never be the same.”

After more than 34 years of housing Flying Possum Leather, an early morning fire on Monday, March 7, damaged the building and led to the death of owner and Dickson Street legend Bruce Walker. Emergency crews responding to the blaze found him on the store floor, his dog Bugsy staying close to his side.
“That was his family, Dickson Street and his dog,” said his older brother 64-year-old Bob Walker, who relocated to Fayetteville from Chico, Calif. following Bruce Walker’s death.

“I had hoped to continue the leather shop,” Bob Walker said. He had been in talks with one of Bruce Walker’s former employees, but the money wasn’t there to continue the venture.

“We didn’t really feel like Bruce would have wanted us to,” he said. “I think Dickson Street has been trying to leave Bruce behind for years.”

Next week, Bob Walker will find out if his next venture will become a reality: Flying Possum Saloon.

The bar would be open by January at the earliest, Bob Walker said.

“I’m probably a little older than most people in the bar business,” he said, but he has two younger and very creative people in mind to be his partners.

They hope to decorate the bar with lots of Bruce memorabilia that people would recognize, he said.

Bruce was known for his custom sandals styled like Birkenstocks, as well as his patented acoustic guitar strap used by Willie Nelson, Neil Young and many others.

Bob Walker also hopes to have a small dance floor in the Flying Possum Saloon, possibly offering free dance lessons at happy hour. He has been teaching all forms of dance from salsa to swing.

“I’d like to have space to clear out and put a dance floor,” he said, but it is more important that what they put in the space works.

*    *    *

“When he came to [visit me in] California, boy he was wide eyed,” said Bob Walker. In his late 20s at the time, Bob Walker worked as a custom shoe and boot maker in downtown Chico, Calif., and was the first vendor in Chico to sell Birkenstock sandals. “[He] thought what I was doing out there was cool. …He looked up to me.”

Bruce Walker got his first experience with leatherwork in Bob Walker’s shop in 1973. That was also the year he received his first pair of Birkenstocks, probably as a gift, Bob Walker said after a little though.

Bruce Walker returned to Searcy, their home town, and made his first few pairs of shoes.

“I’m not sure it was by design, but he found his way into the business,” Bob Walker said.

After moving to Northwest Arkansas in 1974, Bruce Walker worked at Blanchard Spring Cavarns outside of Mountain View as a tour guide for the U.S. Forest Service at the time. While walking down Dickson Street on a weekend visit to Fayetteville, he noticed a help wanted sign in the recently opened Nelson Leather Co.’s window.

“He walked in, said he made the shoes he was wearing, and they hired him on the spot,” Bob Walker said.

A year later, the owners of Nelson Leather Co. took advantage of an opening and moved their business to Eureka Springs. Bruce Walker leased the space and in 1975, the 35-year reign of Flying Possum Leather began.

When he first opened, half of the unit was split with a jewelry story. He leased the entire unit as soon as the jewelers moved out, despite the jump in rent to quadruple his former rate.

“He had already made up his mind that he was going to expand,” Bob Walker said, although times weren’t always easy for Bruce Walker financially. He was often “dancing to the right and dancing to the left” to maintain his finances, “but it never occurred to him to leave Dickson or get a smaller shop,” Bob Walker said. “Dickson Street, the Flying Possum, his dog, his craft, that was his persona. It didn’t have to make sense business wise. It was who he was.”

Bugsy, Bruce Walker's DogBruce Walker was a hard person to describe, said Bil Jett, a long time friend who also worked on Dickson Street. “He was easy going for the most part, but if you ever made an enemy of him, by God he never forgot it.”

After Bruce Walker’s dog Bugsy was rescued from the fire, Jett was one of many Fayetteville residents vying to give him a home.

“I just felt it was the right thing to do, one way I could honor Bruce,” he said. “I’d known Bugsy since he was a baby, and knew he was a really good dog.”

Jett doesn’t have any problem with a bar replacing Flying Possum Leather. “To be honest, I didn’t think they could replace Bruce in there anyway.”

*   *   *

Support poured out for Bruce Walker’s family following the accident.

“We had pages of people who sign up, and dozens of people who showed up [to help clean],” Bob Walker said. “It’s hard to name a few people, there were so many who gave so much.”

The people of Fayetteville have been the silver lining of the ordeal, Bob Walker said, describing it as a humbling experience. “[Bruce] would be blown away.”

Grown men have came up to Bob Walker, telling him stories of how they came to Fayetteville as freshmen, a little bit scared and a little bit homesick. They would walk into the Flying Possum, and leave two or three hours later feeling like they’re more at home.

Four nights after the fire, 20 bands had signed up to play at a memorial service for Bruce Walker at George’s Majestic Lounge, across the street. The owner, a long time friend of Bruce, plans to make it annual event and donate the proceeds to non-profits that support things Bruce believed in like Springfest, a music and food festival held on Dickson Street each year, Bob Walker said.

The owner of George’s Majestic Lounge could not be reached for comment.

If plans come together with his partners, Bob Walker said he is almost certain they will be successful. However he will not proceed without the right partners, showing a bit of the frank spirit for which his brother was known.

“Bruce was a person who would tell you what [was on his mind],” Bob Walker said. “He was no shrinking violet.”

1 Comment »